A lot has been written about Everest’s darkest day, April 18, 2014, in which 16 sherpas died in an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall after a large serac collapsed. This tragedy seems to have unleashed a lot of heated issues and emotions that were roiling just under the surface, which explains why this deadly day continues to be discussed in the media.
I added my own two cents to the discussion with my most recent Rock and Ice column, “Dead Sherpa Walking.” My take on the tragedy explores the question of whether it can be considered ethically responsible to continue guiding on the South Side of the mountain (the side with the Khumbu Icefall, which is where the majority of death occurs for the hired sherpa workers) when other options exist, whether that’s moving your commercial operation to the safer (but tougher) North Side of the mountain, or simply using helicopters to do a majority of the heavy lifting of establishing Camps 1 and 2 on the South Side.
“Dead Sherpa Walking” is out on the newsstands now (issue #222), so if you’re interested in reading my thoughts about this topic, please snatch up a copy and share your thoughts in the comments field below.
I was also interested to see that National Geographic has contributed some great reporting to this story. First, the November issue of National Geographic magazine contains an article by Chip Brown that paints an incredibly poignant, well-written recap of the tragedy and its aftermath. “Sorrow on the Mountain” falls in the tradition of other masterpieces of literary journalism. Bravo, Mr. Brown. All images are from the November issue. You can also see more images , and read Brown’s story, on the National Geographic website—I highly recommend it.
The Khumbu icefall creeps at an incredible rate of 3 feet per day. National Geographic has also put together a really fascinating graphic that uses satellite imagery and still photographs to pinpoint the source of the massive avalanche that killed 16 sherpas this year. Martin Gamache, the senior editor of cartography for NG, pieced together the evidence based on satellite imagery and still photographs taken this year.
I reached out to Gamache to ask him if he thinks the Khumbu Ice Fall is too risky to justify the trips through it? His answer reflected a lot of my personal feelings that I wrote about for Rock and Ice. Here’s his answer:
“I’m not sure if I’m qualified to answer that questions for others,” he responded. “Individual climbers need to asses risk for themselves. The Khumbu has always been a dangerous place, but it has disproportionately killed young ethnic Sherpa and other porter men. I’m not sure how much more dangerous it is now, there has been no objective, quantitative, scientific analysis of risk from serac fall in the Khumbu so it’s hard to determine if it’s more dangerous now. Of course our perception of risk is high now in light of recent events, but human memory is short. What needs to change is how that risk is managed, so that we have mechanisms in place to minimize risk for everyone involved in climbing on the mountain. Having a class of individual porters who bear the brunt of the risk is inherently unethical. Proper risk assessment, monitoring, mitigation ( perhaps seasonal closures when seracs are too threatening, triggering avalanches like we do for backcountry skiing), insurance and compensation should be in place for all who climb on the mountain. Once the cost for managing this risk is factored in, it may well be that we can no longer afford to climb Everest the way we do now. That is by having a group of poor, financially incentivized individuals, unfairly burdened with that risk, supporting a group of rich individuals spending a minimal amount of time exposed to those risks.”
.What do you think? What changes should be made to commercial guiding on Everest in light of what we now know about the Khumbu Icefall?